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Study Shows Declining Number of Americans Interested in Reading - 2004-07-22

A new survey suggests that reading literature may be an endangered pastime in the United States. The National Endowment for the Arts has issued Reading At Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. The study shows there's been a 10 percent drop over the past two decades in the number of Americans reading novels, short stories, plays and poems.

Teddy Tessasyone is about to start his senior year in high school. He likes history and math, and plans to go on to college. But when he has free time, he's not likely to pick up a book.

"I do find myself reading, but magazine articles, not books," he said. "I also like to play basketball, football, soccer. I find myself going to the gym, lifting weights, surfing the Internet, talking to friends online, and just hanging out with friends basically." A lot of other people in the United States make the same kinds of choices. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that 46.7 percent of Americans say they read a literary work in 2002, compared with 56.9 percent in 1982. Ninety five percent prefer watching television, 60 would rather see a movie, and 55 percent would choose weightlifting or other exercise over reading books.

"For the first time in the history of this study, we have seen reading decline among every segment of American adults, every age group, every ethnic group, every region, every income level, every education level, both among men and women," said Dana Gioia, chairman of the NEA. "And even more concerning, the rates of decline have accelerated versus previous studies. In the past we'd see some groups go down, some groups go up. Now everyone is reading less."

Dana Gioia believes the growing popularity of electronic devices from computers to video games to DVDs plays a major role in the trend.

"Americans are still watching as much television as they did 20 years ago, but they're now spending more of their time on all of these other devices. And what has suffered, insofar as we can measure from this study, are really three things - reading, cultural participation and civic participation," she said. "And we see the nation really dividing into two camps. A small group of people who are very active and informed. They are reading, and they are three times more likely to go to the theater or an art museum, or do volunteer work or charity work. They're even twice more likely to go to a sporting event. And then there is an increasingly large number of people who stay at home, and become passive consumers of electronic entertainment."

Other publishing news might seem to contradict those trends. Literary classics like Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina now lead U.S. bestseller lists, thanks to Oprah Winfrey's popular television book club. And the release of a new Harry Potter novel can set off a virtual stampede at bookstores. But Dana Gioia believes those events obscure the fact that for many people, reading has become an isolated event, not a way of life.

"We have a million people reading a book, or two million people reading a book, but there used to be 20 million people reading thousands of different books," she said. "It's also I think very symbolic that when everybody reads a book in our society, that's now big news. There have been 40 million American adults added to the population over the last 20 years. There have only been 600,000 new readers added."

Steve Moyer sees evidence of that trend at Chapters Literary Bookstore in Washington, D.C., where he's co-owner.

"I find that people are browsing less sometimes, especially younger people," he said. "And a lot of times their choices are driven by what a book club has decided to read. Just the joy of being in a book store and letting the books call out to you is something you don't see as much."

Another irony is that a growing number of books are being published in the United States, and sold at an expanding number of stores. Chapters' other owner, Terri Merz, says all that competition - for a shrinking number of readers - can be a challenge.

"This is our 19th year of business, and of course it's always been a battle and gotten to be more of a battle over the years," said Terri Merz. "It's very worrisome, and we feel very fortunate to be here in [Washington] D.C. People are always reading, and they're reading great things."

Like many popular bookstores, Chapters promotes reading by recommending titles to customers and hosting author appearances. George Hagen came to Chapters recently to talk about his debut novel, The Laments. He's also worked as a Hollywood screenwriter, and while a lot of Americans may prefer movies to books these days, he says writing a novel was liberating.

"The catch with a movie is that a movie has to be two hours long, and a book can go on for as long as you want it to," he said. "That's the main reason why I love books, that you can get involved in a story and time doesn't matter."

Pamela Nash and Julie Jacobson came to Chapters to hear George Hagen talk about his book. Both are avid readers.

"If I couldn't actually physically read, I would want to listen to books," said Ms. Nash. "I would find that experience of hearing other voices and seeing other places in my brain to be completely necessary to my existence somehow."

"If I'm home in the evening, and I watch something on TV, I feel as though I'm destroying my brain cells, that it really was not a worthwhile night," Ms. Jacobson said. "But I can sit home on the sofa and read for a couple of hours and I feel really satisfied."

The challenge for reading advocates is to encourage that same kind of enthusiasm in other people. Dana Gioia believes the effort must involve a range of groups.

"In order to arrest or reverse this trend, it's going to take a lot of people working in a lot of different ways, in education, in the media, and just in the way cultural institutions reach and involve people," she said.

Because the NEA study shows a relationship between involved readers and involved citizens, chairman Dana Gioia believes its findings should be of nationwide concern. He says Americans can no longer take what he calls "active and engaged literacy" for granted.